How to sell 100% or more of your articles to the newspapers…


This is segment #5 of a 16-part series called “How to Sell 75% of Your Freelance Writing.”

That 100% sales number is true, the ratio is right, but in this field it’s a bit of a numbers game because you will submit the same article simultaneously to lots of newspapers (and magazines).

If you send out 12 copies and sell one, you have sold the submission 100% of the time. If you sell three or four (or more, which isn’t uncommon if it’s a good topic well written), bingo, you sell 300% or 400%.

(How do I know? Because I did it for 30+ years. Once I sold the same newspaper piece 23 times, and three or four times I sold one nine times in 13 simultaneous submissions. I’m not boasting. There may have been 20-30 of us doing essentially the same thing. It’s a professional marketing process.)

The process is simple too. You get an idea, research it, prepare a newspaper market list, write the manuscript, reproduce as many copies of that manuscript as you have primary markets, and send a manuscript to each editor with a cover note (usually suggesting the availability of photos) with a self-addressed, stamped return envelope in case it’s rejected. Then wait to see it in print. They usually send a page tear-out or two of the printed piece, with the check.

Alas, the risk is higher than for queried magazines. Here you must do all the research and writing without any indication of a sale. You might have a dozen copies of the same masterpiece rejected—that happens to even the most gifted professionals. So your selling percentage would be zero while your time expenditure, plus preparation costs and postage, could be considerable.

Even worse, when you do sell, most newspaper markets pay poorly, or at least well below their queried magazine counterparts. So if you earn a half or a third as much per sale this way, you need a lot more sales to stay even. And they are all written at 100% risk.

Yet your numbers can be exciting. You write “the” article about visiting the regal palaces in Haiti, Mexico, and Brazil and zip it off to 18 newspaper travel editors. Six find it irresistible —four buy the piece (half with color pix, the rest, black and white photos), two just want the prose. Since you sold exactly the same article six times, you sold at a 600% ratio. And you earned from $1,000-1,800 total. Not bad for one item. Except that you could have earned roughly the same with two similar sales, with photos, to middle-level travel magazines—or to just one in a higher pay range. And since you would have queried the magazines and received a go-ahead first, almost removing the risk altogether.

What makes simultaneous submissions worth doing is the possibility that many markets will buy the very same material. Since you can send that identical copy to 4 or 10 or 25 publications at once, the potential of multiple sales overrules the element of risk.

Where can you simultaneously submit nonfiction copy? Daily newspapers, their weekly supplements, and to some religious, regional, and in-flight magazines.

Newspapers don’t buy much from freelancers anymore. Travel is the most sought, but some also buy op ed pieces, food, reviews, and ecology and computer specials.

Travel is the easiest type of writing to sell. Almost all newspapers regularly feature travel, and for you, if you keep receipts and can justify your expenses for trips, the costs can be deducted from your taxes.

With the exception of the “national newspapers” like the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and USA Today, you can simultaneously send the same manuscript, unqueried, to newspaper travel sections in cities where papers don’t overlap in circulation or distribution. (For most, primary circulation doesn’t extend beyond 100 miles.)

Where they do overlap, using Chicago as an example, you might send it to the Tribune first; if rejected, to the Sun-Times next, and, if still rejected, simultaneously to the newspapers in Milwaukee, Arlington Heights, and South Bend, Indiana, which are too close to Chicago to buy simultaneously what appears in the dominant metropolitan daily but, separately, don’t overlap. Create a national list of separate circulation spheres and submit. If there are overlappers, do them one at a time until one says yes or you run out of newspapers in that area!

The pay for newspaper travel is fairly low: $85-150 per article bought, plus $10-$25 per black and white photo used. Color is seldom purchased from freelancers, but it can earn $25-100 per shot used. The good news: if one newspaper is interested in the manuscript, often several more are too—and often about half of those will also buy from one to four photos.

At the outset don’t compete against the travel editors by sending full-length articles several thousand words long. The editor usually writes the main piece—or buys it from another travel editor. Given a choice between his or her own article, another editor’s, or yours, guess who loses? Shoot for one of the many “second” articles regularly bought from freelancers. Keep yours in the 1,000-1,600-word range, preferably about 1,250, at least until your name is well known and your writing respected.

I go into this in great detail in my Travel Writer’s Guide. It also includes “365 Ideas for Travel Articles.”

Newspaper Weekly Supplements

Submitting to newspaper weekly supplements follows the same rule, except the items may be longer. Again, send only to those where circulation or distribution don’t overlap. If you wish to sell to Parade, Family Weekly, or a similar national supplement, try them one at a time first. If there are no takers, you can submit the article simultaneously to the regional newspapers.

A few of the newspaper weekly magazine editors, like those of many of the religious, regional, and in-flight magazines, will want to be queried, though others will gladly accept direct submissions. Since you are writing the manuscript first, counting on the sheer number distributed to produce enough sales to offset the time spent on research and writing, what do you do?

If the piece is pure humor, forget the query and send it to all possible markets. But if it has a core topic (even though it’s humorous) and can be queried if sent singly, (1) send copies to all possible simultaneous markets, and (2) send a query, individually written, to each editor of those markets that want query letters, then rework the manuscript to meet their unique needs.

You can reduce the rewriting if you make sure that the query describes precisely what you’ve written, in the same style and tone. Don’t mention that the actual copy has already been penned. If asked, indicate that it will be offered to other newspaper weekly supplements outside the editor’s circulation area (or to religious publications of other faiths or sects, regionals in other parts of the country, or in-flights covering other parts of the nation, if your primary market is in one of those fields).

Should a queried editor want to see the piece, send a copy of the simultaneous submission. If he wants it written in a special way or to a different length, or suggests some other revision, alter the basic copy to meet the editor’s demands and send it. That way you get the best of both worlds, querying and simultaneous submission.

Most newspaper supplements want local items, or at least something their readers can immediately relate to. Local items are difficult if the piece is to be sold simultaneously nationwide. So focus on topics of immediate interest everywhere. Humor or humorous items work well, particularly about something everybody has experienced or will, like a blind date, cooking your first Thanksgiving turkey, or attending your first high school reunion—to pick three evergreens. Holiday topics, investigative reporting in the consumer affairs area, medical discoveries, nostalgia about famous people, or major events are other items you can sell from coast to coast.

What else do newspapers buy—and how must you write to fit instantly on their pages? The best way to find out what they might buy is to read what they just bought, then write that way.

How can you find the newspapers or simultaneous submission magazines? Google for the newspaper editors and check the current Writer’s Market for regional, religious, and in-flight entries. As a rule of thumb, the larger and more independent the newspaper, the more likely it is to buy (and pay) for freelance material.

Later in this series I will talk about submitting photography to increase your salability and income from newspapers and magazines.

In the next section, #6, out in a few days, let me explain a far less risky and better paying system for selling more than 75% of the time to magazines. Stayed tuned!

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

P.S. I talk in greater detail about writing and publishing at my free monthly newsletter. Join in!

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2 Comments to “How to sell 100% or more of your articles to the newspapers…”

  1. By Admin, January 24, 2013 @ 7:36 am

    Just found this tucked into many blog comments. Sorry for the huge delay. Too big a question for a quick response. I wrote a book some years back that Amazon must still sell used (probably for a penny!) called How to Sell 75% of Your Freelance Writing. There’s the answer, and it’s barely dated at all. Also, apply the concepts to new digital and platform markets just the same way. If you are writing travel, see my Travel Writer’s Guide that applies the principles to travel: Best wishes, Gordon Burgett